September 7, 2018

‘The Balkan’ from Belgrade to Sofia

Those of you in the know will be aware that Belgrade has a bit of a railway station identity crisis at the moment. The original station now having closed, the new station called ‘Central’ is open, but barely finished it is not yet capable of dealing with all the services it is supposed to at the moment. So confusingly, the single daily summer service from Belgrade to Sofia currently departs from a tiny station in a leafy suburb of the city called Topcider. My train from Zagreb yesterday arrived in the Central station though.. Both have ticket offices, neither have anything else you might need.

My taxi driver is keen to impress and drives us right onto the main station platform to drop me off. There are a few backpackers and locals hanging around, but not always trusting second hand news, I breeze into the station master’s office and enquire about today’s train. I seem to have moved into the mode of speaking loudly in English, as though I will be better understood. It seems to work here. The member of staff with the best English answers my questions and it turns out that the train is already here and ready to go in half an hour. Being a signed up member of the Tufty Club, I’m nervous at walking across tracks, but that’s required here to reach The Balkan, where it lurks on on platform 3 like a rebellious bad boy of a train.

There are no signs, clocks or screens at Topcider. It’s the sort of station that you ask where to go and which train to get on. My options today are simple as there is just one train and two carriages. The one I have a reservation in is a commuter coach and does not look like a comfortable place to be for this 12 hour journey.

Instead I find a seat in the second coach. It doesn’t look like its going to be busy today, and other than a few tourists, no one seems to care about which seat they are supposed to be sitting in.

You may have noticed the distinctive livery of The Balkan, but it’s not an official one. It seems that nearly all trains in Serbia are covered in graffiti. I have seen some so bad that I wonder how the driver can see out the front!

Right on time at 09.06 the driver hoots his horn and we set off down the line with all the doors still open. The rules on this train are in character with its external image. People smoke at the open doorways and the guards seem to view both the open doors and the cigarettes as totally normal. To compensate for this the air-conditioning is switched off and we adjust the climbing temperature by opening up the steamy and grimy windows as best as possible.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about today’s journey across Serbia is the police presence. I couldn’t work it out at first. At nearly every stop a gang of them would get on and question people before leaving. The more this happens the later the train gets and we are soon a couple of hours behind. At one place a plain clothes woman asks to see my passport and actually gets on the phone to someone to discuss my presence onboard. One of her colleagues joins in and asks me where I’m going. “Azerbaijan” I tell him, but I think he misunderstands me and thinks I have said Afghanistan. More police arrive and notes are made about my passport whilst I explain that I’m actually headed to Baku rather than Kabul. Eventually they move on; I’m not what they are looking for. They head down the carriage to interview one of the German hippies.

Later in the day a fresh squad bring a sniffer dog onto the train. All of them are armed with at least an automatic pistol and a baton. They mean business. It would seem you can choose your own gun in the Serbian police force. Most of them go for a Beretta 92F, some fitted with custom wood grips. Someone told me that no one liked the Beretta until Mel Gibson used one in the 1987  film “Lethal Weapon”. Now they all use them.

Speaking with a couple of friendly Brits at the end of the carriage, we conclude that this may be all about the flow of people from the south (Albania) toward the EU border (Bulgaria). It would seem to make sense, and if I’m ever on the run I will know now never to take a Serbian train.

As we reach the south of the country, the broken industrial landscape changes to one of mountains and meadows. Once we have left Nis, the train backs out the way we came in and we take a junction onto a single line that climbs through the mountains. It feels more like Colorado than Serbia to me. Incidentally if you are a steam fan, I noticed a whole graveyard of rusty engines outside the station there.

I chose the right carriage. As the day went on the other one began to small terribly, and I suspect that a major accident might have occurred in the single toilet. As the sun set we reached the Bulgarian border, where we surrendered passports once more. My passport was inspected so many times that I had given up putting it away. The only difference with this border was that the Bulgarian security people inspected the roof of the train and peered into voids with a long snakelike light, presumably looking for people.

I got rather confused by my timetable at this point, as a result of the names of some similar sounding places, like Dimitrovgrad, and the change in time between the two countries. The train was due to arrive at 20.19, but at 21.30 I calculated we were still two to three hours from Sofia. The wonders of the modern world saved me though, back on EU telephone roaming I figured out we were actually much closer, and in the end we arrived at around 22.00.

This journey was always going to be a bit of a challenge. I did actually find it mainly relaxing, if a little hot during the afternoon. The passengers were all charming, and the train staff and police were pleasant enough. I brought along a days food and 3 litres of water, but had run out of water several hours before we got in to Sofia. So if I was doing this again I would overstock on rations just in case. By taking this route I have broken the back of the mileage to Istanbul, with just a nearly direct night train ahead of me. By contrast the northern route via Bucharest leaves more mileage until its final day.

On arrival in Sofia a few passengers who had booked onto the Istanbul Express missed the connection, and had to get a seat on the 23.00 bus departing out front. The international ticket office closes at 21.00, so the chances are you will need to come back the next morning to sort out onward tickets even if slightly delayed. Sofia station struck me as large, clean and safe – a good place to be, with helpful staff and lots of seating. They have even placed a few steam engines around the building.

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